Terminology introduction: By sight most football fans will associate the term nose tackle as someone who aligns in a zero technique in 3-4 defense (three down linemen and four linebackers). What's "zero technique" mean? That's when a defense's innermost tackle is lined up directly across from the center, essentially helmet across from helmet over the football. All even numbered techniques are alignments directly opposite an offensive linemen or tight end. So a 2-technique is a tackle aligned directly across from an offensive guard, a 4-technique directly across from a tackle, a 6-technique opposite a tight end. All odd numbered techniques are alignments that shade players so they are not directly helmet on helmet with offensive linemen, but instead more on the shoulder of an offensive linemen or in the gap between two offensive linemen. 1-technique means a defensive tackle is in between the center and guard. A 3-technique tackle aligns in between a guard and tackle, and so on.
Ideologically most defenses are either engineered to be a two-gap style scheme, or a one-gap scheme. Two-gap schemes are more likely to be odd fronts (three down linemen) with linemen focused on gap control, pocket containment and trying to keep offensive guards from releasing to get second level blocks. Down linemen are trying to anchor their gap, read the run and be able to get off blocks and close down plays on either side with help from linebackers, or get hands up in passing lanes versus the pass. One gap schemes, like Arizona State's, are designed to have down linemen try to exploit gaps in order to destabilize the offensive backfield on run downs and put more pressure on quarterbacks when offenses pass from base downs. One gap schemes are more aggressive and attack-focused, involve more blitzing. ASU's one of the most blitz-heavy teams in college football.
Here's a detailed overview of ASU's positions:
Nose Tackle: ASU doesn't really call this position a nose tackle because of how it uses the position, but rather just a defensive tackle, while it names the other tackle position (3-technique) "Tiger." The nose tackle often is lined up in different techniques, from a shaded 1-technique or what it calls an inside 'G,' or head up over the guard in a 2-technique, and rarely in a zero technique. Even in the stack 30 front (3-3-5), which Todd Graham calls his base look but one ASU has used only rarely though his first three seasons in Tempe (against Arizona in the 2012 Territorial Cup more than any other game), it often isn't in a zero technique in the ASU scheme. That's where you want a huge space eating nose tackle to compress the pocket and sit into double teams, like Mo Latu. But ASU thinks differently, which is one of the reasons Latu played the 3-technique position last year when ASU didn't have good options among interior pass rushers. The prototypical nose tackle in ASU's scheme is a big, strong, stout and yet explosive and mobile. If you recall two seasons ago, versatile lineman Davon Coleman played all three true defensive line positions but had a lot of success as a 1-tehcnique tackle in terms of tackles for loss and sacks, when he was next to Will Sutton. What happened is Sutton commanded so much attention and double teams that Coleman had more opportunity to operate in space one-on-one against centers, and he was productive as a result. In the past, when ASU had better interior pass rush options at the Tiger position, like Sutton, it liked using Latu or someone like that as its inside tackle to help against the run. Currently, ASU is looking at Demetrius Cherry as its 1-tehcnique tackle, another player who can line up at any of the three positions, but is stout and long, which gives him upside against the run. But they may move Cherry to the end position and shift Edmond Boateng from end to Devil if they can't get enough pressure with a four man rush.
Tiger: When ASU is playing with a Devil backer in a 3-point stance it is essentially a 4-3 front, and that's been the most common base look it has used in Graham's first three years. In this front, the Tiger defensive tackle position usually aligns as a 3-tehcnique tackle in between the guard and tackle and is trying to attack the gap in order to get into the backfield, usually be exploding off a quick key of the snap and attacking the guard's outside shoulder. Will Sutton had such great combination of quickness and low pad level, he did this at a very high level, especially when not doubled. He was able to out-leverage guards about as well as any defensive tackle in the Pac-12 in recent years and that was perfectly suited to Graham's scheme and enabled Sutton to become back-to-back Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the year. In its 3-3-5 defense, the Devil aligns as the middle linebacker and the Tiger usually operates from a 5-technique, just off the tackle's shoulder, where there is a chance to get a two-way go (outside or inside rush) when a tight end isn't covering the player up. ASU prefers aligning the Tiger to the boundary side of the field next to the Devil in order to enhance the potency of its pass rush on that side of the field, but personnel determines its ability to do it. The goal of this player is to get into the backfield and be disruptive, quickly reading the play and either sacking the quarterback on pass plays or making tackles for loss on run plays. Tashon Smallwood has the foot quickness to have upside in this role, but has needed to get bigger, stronger and more technically sound with how he use his hands and arms in order to be able to exploit his plus athleticism. He's improved in this regard but still room to go before he's able to consistently make that type of impact Sutton did. The Sun Devils are no doubt hoping to have high profile recruit Joseph Wicker -- a high school player with a rare combination of size, strength and explosiveness -- come in and immediately impact the defense at this position.
Field End: ASU aligns its entire defense based on field (wider side of the field based on ball's hash mark location on any given play) vs boundary (shorter side of field), and the field side end most frequently lines up in a 5-technique (between the tackle and tight end) and is almost always located to the field side (wider side). ASU just calls it the end position, as the line's other bookend is the Devil. This end's job is to set the edge and contain the ball carrier, forcing him inside where there is more help and preventing the ball from accessing the alley (located on the field side slot area). This is especially important on read option plays versus spread teams in which there is mesh point that necessitates proper technique, discipline and quick reading of the play. (Sometimes the end is crashing regardless if the Spur is responsible for contain depending on opponent formation and how ASU has determined it will handle certain looks/plans). The end has to be stout and stay square to the line of scrimmage with his shoulder and move his feet well though blocks in order to locate himself where he needs to be in order to limit the capability of stretch runs or quick hitting screen passes to the flat. On passing downs, depending on how versatile its personnel is, ASU often replaces the field end with a dedicated pass rusher because run containment isn't much of a focus. Junior Onyeali was an example of a third down pass rusher option who came on and operated at end out of a 3-point stance in Graham's early ASU years. Sometimes ASU tried to put tight end/3-back Demarieya Nelson in this role last season but its options were more limited.
Devil: One of several hybrid positions in ASU's scheme, this one is mostly rush end and some part linebacker. ASU has most frequently used the Devil backer as a 3-point pass rusher who lines up on the boundary side of the field and this position can be in a 5-technique, a 7 technique or in a 9-technique. Carl Bradford was a ver good Devil backer due to his explosiveness off the snap and how effectively he could bend the edge as a pass rusher. A Devil backer can be 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds or 6-foot-0 and 235 pounds. It's not so much about the size but how well suited a player's athleticism and movement skills are to the position. Last season, the Sun Devils didn't have a natural Devil backer, used Antonio Longino in the role but as more of a 2-point pass rusher, which gave ASU more of a 3-4 look even though the role was not really different. Later in the season Logino shifted to a more natural WILL position and ASU went with a heavier four man front, different from what Graham ideally wants to do. This year Graham is hoping to get back to his preferred use of the Devil, but the arrest of Davon Durant has put that in question. A.J. Latu is more of a base end (field end) type player. Redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson is a very good Devil prospect but young and struggling to learn ASU's playbook and his assignments well enough to be relied upon. It's possible ASU could shift to using current first-team field end Edmond Boateng, bigger than ideal as a Devil but someone with a good first step, at the position. In the 3-3-5 stack look, the Devil backer serves as the team's middle linebacker and usually is found blitzing the A-gap as a dedicated fourth pass rusher. Sometimes he'll move around into other gaps as well.
Spur: This is another hybrid position, almost like part linebacker, part nickel back, part safety, and requires tremendous athleticism and football savvy to be truly successful. It's quite possibility the most challenging position on the field due to how broad the skill and athletic requirements are. The player has to be physical against the run and impactful and aggressive as a blitzer as well have good enough foot speed and technique to cover receivers, tight ends and backs on routes. This player is often running in coverage in wide swaths of field and can be exposed if not technically sound and alert. Offenses can run or throw to the flat to the field side and take advantage of him if he's not able to get off blocks or be a sound tackler in space. He frequently is asked to set the edge to the wide sideline near the line of scrimmage, so he has to be strong and physical. ASU sends a lot of five and six man pressures and the Spur is the player most frequently called upon to blitz. Former ASU linebacker Chris Young was an excellent Spur because he possesses rare versatility and was able to excel in all aspects of the position athletically plus have great natural instincts despite being bigger than most guys who can play the position. Two years ago, ASU really struggled at Spur, but in 2015, safety Laiu Moeakiola showed he could handle the role's steep demands. The only thing that limited Moeakiola is that he had a shoulder injury that reoccurred through the season, a sign of how physically challenging the position really is.
WILL: Calling its linebacker positions WILL and SAM is really a misnomer for ASU because it actually doesn't align these players to offensive formation strength, but instead depending on ball placement. The WILL almost always is on the boundary side of the field. Against the run, the WILL frequently ends up having to take on and defeat blocks on inside zone runs by the the offensive guard and sometimes the center. Also, the WILL is heavily relied upon as a blitzer, usually an overload blitz with two defenders (the WILL and boundary corner, the WILL and bandit as examples) on the boundary side of the field. As a result, the WILL is one of the most relied upon tacklers on the field and a player who is going to be around the football a lot and have to make plays that prevent big gainers going to the other direction. If this player can run well it's a big plus for several reasons. One, the WILL often chases plays across a wide area of the field to the field side on swing passes, screens and stretch/outside runs. Two, the WILL has to run with running back on wheel routes out of the flat, something ASU really struggled with at the position last year and it resulted in giving up some big plays. Antonio Longino and D.J. Calhoun both have a lot of potential in this role but must be more consistent with gap fits and identifying pass play assignments and reacting quickly enough to prevent big plays yielded to their assignments.
SAM: This player usually lines up to the field side unless opponents have a lone in-line tight end to the boundary side of the formation, in which case the SAM will sometimes switch with the WILL depending on ASU's personnel implementation and who the opponent is. The SAM linebacker frequently has B-gap (between guard and tackle) responsibility and sometimes a B/C gap read responsibility. ASU often likes to attack the B-gap with the player, especially out of 30 fronts (three down linemen) when there is more space between the end and nose. Like the WILL, the SAM often has to take on offensive line blockers who reach the second level and get back to the ball carrier against the run. The ideal player here is someone who is very rugged and physical when attacking downhill against the run. He'll blow up blocks, collapse gaps and bring down ball carriers with great consistency. When ASU goes to a nickel alignment on passing downs, the SAM usually comes off the field. An ideal SAM also has the ability to sit in zone drops effectively, or even cover the deep middle third. This is one of the areas returning starter Salamo Fiso needs to improve at, as well as his ability to run laterally to the football on stretch or option runs, or wide passes to the flat. Sophomore Christian Sam has more range to do these things and a higher ceiling than Fiso probably long term but plays a bit high and isn't as much of a head hunter or as certain a gap fitter as yet.
Boundary corner: Operating on the short side of the field, run plays and wide screen passes quickly reach the short side of the field so this corner has to be able to get off blocks and be very physical. He can't get moved off the line or washed out in traffic easily because that's something that can be exploited consistently by opponents. ASU likes to press with both of its corners, another reason it's important to have a physical player here. The boundary corner blitzes more than anyone else on the team except the Spur and probably the WILL backer, depending on how much ASU likes its personnel at the spots, so quick explosiveness and the ability to get through or around max protection blockers is a valuable asset here. The boundary corner isn't as much of a cover corner as the field corner is, especially from a speed and range standpoint. ASU isn't as apt to have its boundary corner on an island and there's a lot of help from the Bandit safety here often on passing downs. But this corner often goes up against other team's biggest and most physical receivers and as such has to be effective at getting a re-route or jam at the line and also having ball skills on back shoulder fades and other routes. Lloyd Carrington is very well suited to this role because of his size, strength, physical disposition and coverage skills.
Bandit safety: This player is part cornerback, part safety and that's really the case with both ASU safeties, especially the field side position. When the boundary corner is blitzing, the Bandit has to often cover receives in man often, and generally speaking, there's a lot of deep third or half of the field responsibility. ASU uses a lot of different coverage shells so versatility is a big thing, while range isn't as important as the other safety spot but still important. This is the safety in passing situations that plays the most zone, particularly when ASU is blitzing. But this safety ideally should have good cover skills as well because he'll occasionally be isolated on opposing team's top receivers in big areas of field as ASU will blitz its boundary corner at least a few times per game on average. There are a lot of situations in which this player is able to sit in a zone and use instincts to make plays as a robber, hence the name Bandit. That's where former ASU safety Alden Darby was at his best, but he also was at times exposed in man coverage. This player also has to ideally be physical, instinctual and aggressive coming up and attacking the run or screens into the boundary, and that's an area returning starter Jordan Simone excels. Simone is also very good in zone coverage, whereas man assignments are not as much of a strength as other areas of his play. All in all though he's a very good Bandit and a defensive strength.
Field safety: This player aligns to the wide side of the field and will often have man free assignments (one on one with no help) much like a corner, or alternatively have deep quarter, third or half responsibility. He should be very rangy as he'll cover as much ground as anyone on the defense and will often have to accelerate from his set up to the sideline on deep outs/fades/post-corners. He doesn't need to be quite as physical as the Bandit safety and won't be called on as much to make plays nearer the line of scrimmage unless ASU is caught in a run blitz in which the Spur fails to contain when asked to do so, but will have to make tackles in open spaces. When ASU blitzes its Spur, the free safety frequently ends up having a man responsibility against the slot receiver on the field side, which can be very demanding when the blitz doesn't get home. Acceleration is a key ingredient to success because the free safety will have to close and break up plays on intermediate crossing routes or hitches. Damarious Randall had ideal coverage and athletic tools to excel as a field safety but wasn't enough of a physical tackler in space and had an occasional instinct to go for the big play without regard for game situation, even when he didn't have any help behind him on a failed attempt. James Johnson, the likely replacement for Randall, has very good instincts, length and run support capability, but whether he'll have enough range to get to the sideline as a zone help defender or handle man coverage responsibilities well enough remains uncertain.
Field corner: This is a true cover corner position and is very frequently asked to defend receivers in big space out of press or bump coverage techniques, which can be very intimidating for inexperienced players. The dangerous part of this position is that opposing offenses can put the field corner in man free coverage down the field due to the free safety being occupied by another vertical receiver, especially when ASU blitzes, which it does the overwhelming majority of passing downs. So the field corner needs to be able to jam and keep receivers from gaining a free release at the line, as well as pin and run with them in space. Also, they ideally would be good at getting off blocks and supporting on wide side passes to the flat, like receiver screens, or runs to that side. Kweishi Brown and Solomon Means are battling for this position.